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Former Scappoose star more involved on offense this year as UP program goes on upswing

COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - Junior center midfielder Natalie Muth is covering more of the field than ever as a starter for the University of Portland.On the soccer field, Natalie Muth's aggression has helped her lead the Portland Pilots women's soccer program to an encouraging season.

Off the field, the junior midfielder from Scappoose is learning how to assert herself as one of the Pilots' team captains.

"My biggest challenge has been not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings. It's hard for me to hold people accountable," Muth says. "I like to have good positive relationships with everyone."

Muth and the Pilots played their final two home games of the season last weekend, beating Loyola Marymount on Friday and falling to Pepperdine on Sunday. Portland finishes its season on Saturday at Gonzaga.

Narrow losses on the road two weeks ago to seventh-ranked Santa Clara and San Francisco knocked Portland out of contention for a West Coast Conference title. But, in the first season under coach Michelle French, the Pilots (11-8, 4-4 WCC) are improved from the team that won only five games (and scored just 11 goals) a season ago.

Muth is not surprised.

"We have a good team. We just struggled (in the past) to put some pieces together," Muth says. "I've been positive throughout my time here that if we just figure out these few little things we can do very well. Our losses were only 1-0 in the past."

From a young age, soccer was Muth's sport. She tried basketball in middle school because friends played but "always fouled out."

She participated in track and field at Scappoose, mostly to spend time with friends, but never really enjoyed individual sports.

Her high school highlights were on the soccer field, where she was an all-state selection three times and helped the Indians win Class 4A titles in 2013 and as a senior in 2015.

"I was so lucky to play on a team with all my best friends," Muth says. "I still keep in touch with them. I have so many great memories from high school."

In her role as a Pilots midfielder who sometimes serves as an extra central defender, Muth has no problem making her presence felt. As she puts it, she often is the first line of confrontation when opponents attack.

"One of my biggest strengths is winning headers defensively and going into tackles," she says. "My distribution has gotten a lot better since I've been playing center mid."

Muth's assertiveness caught the eye of French in the spring, when Muth scored in a couple of scrimmages. After playing as a fullback as a freshman and at center back as a sophomore under then-coach Garrett Smith, Muth is enjoying the added mobility that comes with her new position in front of the defense.

She has two assists in 15 games this season and career totals of four goals and four assists in 51 matches (47 starts) for the Pilots.

"It's exciting to be able to go further up the field and be more involved in the offense. That's fun for me," Muth says. "I think the hardest part of being a center mid is just being aware spatially. Being in the middle of the field, you have to be aware of all sides of you whereas at center back you know what's behind you — it's just the goalkeeper. You can see everything in front of you."

French says she quickly saw that Muth could be effective in midfield. 

"Right when we came into the spring we felt like there were really good things she was going to be able to do on the ball," French says. "So we wanted to get her a little bit higher up the field and still not take away what she does best, which is be an outright ball winner."

Muth has started all 15 games she has played this season; she missed the final four nonconference games because of a broken right hand. She suffered the injury Sept. 7 in Seattle against Utah Valley. She played two days later, then had surgery to repair a couple of displaced bones.

"I don't know if she's 100 percent herself right now, but she can still have a tremendous impact just because of the way she commands a game because of her physical presence," French says. 

Muth returned to the lineup for the Pilots' WCC opener. She assisted on the go-ahead goal in a 4-1 win at San Diego that helped build confidence for players who went 5-12-1 in league play over the previous two seasons.

Like many of the Pilots from the region, Muth grew up watching the program thrive and idolizing players such as Megan Rapinoe and Sophie Schmidt. While it hurt to see Smith replaced — "I do love and respect my old coaches. I grew up playing for them, so it was hard," she says — Muth is excited about the direction of the program.

"We've made massive improvements, and I think things are finally starting to click for us. We're all excited. It's super positive, great energy going around," she says.

Muth, French says, has played a central role in generating that positive energy on and off the field.

"Her play speaks for itself. You always know what kind of commitment you're going to get from her during a game. And then I think her leadership piece is really a lot of the things that she does off the field," French says. "She is a very good connector. She is friends with everybody, respects everybody and takes time to talk with everybody.

"She's got a really good pulse of the emotions and the mentality of the team, which made her a great fit to be a captain."

A civil engineering major who hopes to work on environmental projects — and not at a desk job — Muth would like to play soccer beyond college.

"I hope to go overseas and play in a different country and use that as my travel experience," she says.

Before she gets there, Muth — no longer the self-described goof-off she was growing up — will do her part to help UP women's soccer return to relevance beyond The Bluff.

"When I was younger, I would rush my decisions a lot or force passes. But I think I'm calmer and able to pull the ball back and switch it," she says. "I think I can see things a lot better, and also I feel more focused and more intense and more into soccer than I have been in the past."

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